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Sarbjit Kochhar’s liquor store is his fortress. With steel bars behind the windows, a roll-down metal screen protecting the front door, and surveillance cameras, S&S Liquors on 4th Street NW provides its 49-year-old owner a sense of security usually enjoyed by prison wardens and bank managers.

But on April 22, minutes before 5 a.m., Kochhar got a call at his home in Herndon from his security company. The store’s silent alarm system—which Kochhar has since replaced—was sensing heat and movement within the stock room.

Kochhar drove into town. As he pulled into the S&S parking lot around 5:45, he noticed that the front wall of the store had a hole in it. Three large cinder blocks and steel reinforcing wire had been smashed and pulled out, leaving a waist-level aperture—18 inches wide and 2 feet high—in the foot-thick wall.

“I thought a truck had backed into the wall,” Kochhar says. He called 911 from inside his SUV, then climbed out to have a closer look. Liquor bottles, cigarette cartons, and chunks of cinder block littered the ground. “I peeped into the hole,” says Kochhar, “and saw the drawer to my cash register stuck in there.”

Four hours later, Kochhar got a call from a former employee, Stephen Gaston. Now a maintenance worker at the Federal Reserve, Gaston, 45, had been walking up Blair Road at 4:25 a.m. to catch a bus to work when he heard banging noises. “I thought they were working on the tracks,” says Gaston, referring to the Metro and CSX train lines behind the store.

“I got closer,” he says, “and I saw my man with a sledgehammer, just banging away.” The man was swinging the tool, says Gaston, as one would swing a baseball bat.

Gaston remembers the man wearing dark clothes and a hat, standing beside a gray car, but he says shadows obscured everything else. “I just looked and kept on walking,” he says. Because he was not carrying his cell phone and couldn’t see a pay phone, he got on his bus and later called Kochhar from work.

Kochhar, reviewing his security camera tape, saw a squat man wearing what looked like a mask and gloves enter the store’s front room. “He was working behind the counter,” says Kochhar. “He didn’t turn his face or nothing.” The man rifled through counter drawers, taking cigarettes, liquor, and money. According to Kochhar, the intruder was in and out in 10 minutes.

Fourth District police Capt. Andrew Solberg says he’s seen many types of forced entry before, but nothing like the hammer attack. “Generally, in liquor stores, they climb up on the roof and break in through an air-conditioning vent,” Solberg says. “This is unique—let’s put it that way.”

The next night, an alarm went off at another Brightwood liquor store, the Cork ‘n Bottle on Georgia Avenue NW. Gene Kang, the assistant manager, says the alarm company called him around 3:40 a.m., and he got to the store by 4. Kang, 25, says he suspected some bottles had fallen and triggered the alarm. When he went into the store, though, he saw broken registers on the floor.

Police shooed him out and brought in a K-9 crew; the dogs led officers to the storeroom. There, on the north side of the building, they found six cinder blocks knocked away, making an entrance 8 feet above the storeroom’s floor. “When they finally realized there was a hole,” says Kang, “like 10 cops rolled up.”

Kang says the thief took only money, though he destroyed two IBM registers costing $8,000 apiece to get to a few thousand dollars in cash.

When Kochhar heard about the break-in from detectives, he visited Cork ‘n Bottle and found that the hole was in a secluded area behind a dumpster and a fenced-in trash unit. But he thinks the robber chose the location for an additional reason: the wall’s material. “If he hits bricks and metal,” he says, “it would cause more sound. Once you hit cinder block, it breaks into powder. It’s a shock absorber, I think.”

Kochhar had been robbed before. A man with a gun ripped him off last October, and, in the summer of 2001, somebody tried to cut through an outer plywood wall with a power saw. But neither of those incidents affected him like the hammerman’s demolition, he says.

“I have not been able to function normally for the last few days,” he says. The disturbing part is not the loss, he says, but the realization that walls do not keep people out. “What safer materials do you use to build with than walls?…I don’t feel I’ll be secure ever again.”

After the robbery, Kochhar called some friends who also owned liquor stores. “I said, ‘If you have cinder block, watch out!’ But what are they going to do? Will they sleep there?” CP